The Atlantic: Diagnosing Mental Illness in Ancient Greece and Rome

The Atlantic has posted an interview with historian William V. Harris, of Columbia University, on mental illness in the Ancient world. Harris is also the author of the edited volume, Mental Disorders in the Classical WorldIn the Atlantic interview Harris – a specialist on the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds more generally – emphasizes changing conceptions of mental illness over time, as well as early efforts to medicalized mental illness. As he notes,

Many people in antiquity thought that mental disorders came from the gods. The Greek gods are a touchy lot, quick to take offense. For instance, they took a hard line with Orestes after his matricide. [Ed. Note: After killing his mother, Orestes was tormented by the Furies.] And in a world where many important phenomena such as mental illness were not readily explicable, the whims of the gods were the fallback explanation.

Physicians and others fought against this idea from an early date (the 5th century B.C.), giving physiological explanations instead. Many people sought magical/religious remedies—such as going to spend the night in a temple of the healing god Asclepius, in the hope that he would work a cure or tell you how to get cured—[while physicians sought] mainly medical ones. No one thought that it was the duty of the state to care for the insane. Either their families looked after them, or they ended up on the street—a nightmare situation.

The full interview can be read online here.

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About Jacy Young

Jacy Young recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She earned her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.

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